From writing, to publishing, to being read – a long journey

Books take a long time to be born, we know that. I’ve had stories published after 30 years. Two of my novels took seven years between their writing and their publication. My other books have averaged three to four years in that pipeline. That is usually par for the course if one is not writing pulp fiction. But I’ve faced another situation which I thought of writing about: where a book can take also as long as the aforementioned publishing cycle between being purchased and being read by a reader.

I have often heard, years after I signed a book at a reading for an avid reader who was ga-ga at the time, that “Oh yes, your book, hmm…it’s still in my reading pile.” Another reader wrote to me the minute she received her copy, saying she was diving straight into it that evening; when I discreetly inquired a few months later, she was still reading my book, along with a dozen others – apparently she reads books in batches, and mine was in the latest batch of 12. Yet another reader has read up to page 51 of one of my books she started in 2009; this notification is sitting for the whole world to see up on Goodreads – I’d like to think it’s because she’s forgotten she has a Goodreads account and not because my book sucks! And others buy books as gifts, collectibles, and trophies, with no intention of ever reading them.

I can understand why books are given out for free in copious quantities. It is because the traditional pipeline, where you actually purchase a copy, does not fetch enough readers, we are told. But the free channel is worse when it comes to actual readers per freebie. I went up on Wattpad two years ago and posted 12 of my already published stories on that burgeoning forum. I was pleased with the result: I have received tons of good comments, one negative comment, many followers, and 220,000 “reads” as of today. But on closer inspection, I see the “fall off” rate: 122K reads for the opening Foreword, and the balance 98K is split on a declining scale between 20K reads for the first story and 5K reads for the last story. Am I to infer from this statistic that of the 220,000 only 5,000 finished what they started? It also makes me wonder whether I am indeed writing crap…

I can also understand why people blog: under the forlorn hope that they are “instantly read and permanently remembered,” and that the dreaded long tail, i.e. from writing to publishing to being read, has been finally eliminated.  I hope that is indeed the case and not the starker one of “instantly read and instantly forgotten,” or worse yet, “flittingly seen and permanently drowned” in the deluge of content constantly washing up on our computers.

There is no solution to being read faster in a universe deluged in print matter. It is unfortunate that the last two generations have produced a disproportionately higher number of writers while they have taken out a vast number of readers due to the increasing time/life crunch. If serious writers continue to write, they must look to the future and believe that they are writing for posthumous recognition, for a time when people will be curious to learn more about our present Age of Expression (or is it the Age of Narcissism?)

And I wonder how the hierarchy of books would be re-ordered if we stopped counting “best-sellers” and counted “most-read” instead?

So Amazon and Kobo want to be Publishers, eh?

The recent announcement by these players to advance up the book industry value chain from retailing to publishing comes as no surprise. In an industry which has many handoffs in its delivery process, and many players, each player muzzles for maximum turf over time. The ones upstream (i.e. the creators) try to advance down the chain like oil companies muzzling into retail gas stations. Those at the tail, retailers like Amazon and Kobo, try to move into the middle currently occupied by publishers, and those in the middle try to go both ways like departments stores that create loyalty programs at one end and private label merchandise at the other.

Success will depend on what value is provided. In the case of Amazon and Kobo, their original value proposition lay in their ability to provide the largest selection of books, globally, without the shopper having to leave the comfort of his home. In becoming a publisher, one has to be selective (also known by that dreaded term “editorial integrity”) and promote only “the selected.” This is a different stance from the presently held “come one, come all” position of these online retailers. So what would Amazon and Kobo do in their new roles as publishers? Provide two•tier distribution: a premium level for authors who self publish through them and a more basic level for all books coming from other publishers? Start a separate branded line for their own publishing streams of books? Cherry•pick the best•selling authors and offer lucrative one•shot deals? Or hire an army of interns to wade through miles of slush piles should every unpublished author want to self•publish through them? This new move is surely going to raise questions about the altered value propositions that these two players now bring to the reader, and to the author.

The danger when two or more bed mates jostle for elbow room on the same bed, especially if one has a lot of muscle, is that the muscular one gains at the expense of the others. The ones with less and less room, risk falling off the bed altogether and may leave to sleep elsewhere with other bedfellows. And there is no fun in sleeping in a bed with one big elephant – be that a major publisher, a retailer•turned publisher or a distributor turned one•stop•shop. In this incestuous game, many bed mates, each having equal space, is good – it’s also called competition, in case I was stirring orgiastic imagery in you!

The wild card for everyone is the technology that is making these moves possible. And technology, while enabling bigger and newer entrants to muzzle in for space, can also scuttle the best made plans plans. In this case, the new technology also allows the story•teller, (aka – the author) to reach his audience directly, for it is no big deal to publish a book these days, be it in trade book format or e•book format, if one is reasonably adept at word processing and has access to some conversion software. And it’s no bigger deal to distribute it directly from one’s website with no intermediary hand•offs. All the author needs is a facilitator who can help his audience find, sample and endorse him. The reader needs the facilitator too, to point him to good reading material. This facilitator role is the one going to be prized both by readers and writers in the future – not a big bully who keeps the lion’s share and offers poor quality in exchange, but a big brother who makes it happen for the writer and the reader.

I am keen to see whether Amazon and Kobo will truly transform into Big Brothers or lose both authors and readers because they ended up being Big Bullies.

New Year Resolutions – short and sweet

On a beach in a Caribbean island, I ran over my usual list of New Year resolutions: manage the weight, exercise regularly, save money, save the trees, go e•books, write more, read more, work less, drink less, shamelessly self promote, keep building my online platform etc., etc., etc.

As nudists on the adjacent beach strutted their stuff, ate and drank copiously, and engaged in a relentless flesh•hunt, I was seeking the austere life. I did not stop with my usual list of resolutions this time either. I went deeper: talk•less, desire less, listen more, dream more, blog only about things that matter, take more risks, make more mistakes (i.e. learn more lessons). I was really getting going here. And there was more to come: open the heart, give until it hurts, burn the writing that does not help humanity, endure more dark nights of the soul – oh boy, and I hadn’t even had a margarita yet. By this time, the sun was high, the nudists roasted and soused, and there was I, a noble idiot, digging myself into the largest hole of self denial, when all about me others were just “havin’ a good tyme, man!”

The solitary nature of my occupation came home to me, especially amidst this sea of humanity that had come to the Caribbean to chill out and be brainless for a short time. As I walked the beach, I scanned for what people were reading. There was one e•reader amidst the variety of paperback genre novels (Dan Brown was still going strong), spread out on deck chairs; their owners were either lapping up the sun with their eyes shut and their reading material abandoned, or dousing themselves in the ocean, or helping themselves to their umpteenth dirty banana (a cocktail) for the day. There was no evidence of literary fiction on this beach.

“Want ganja, man?” the local beachcomber asked me. “No,” I replied. “How about a girl?” “No!” I said. “Want a ride in my canoe?” He kept pace with me, like a barnacle on a boat. “No, I can’t swim.” “How about some fun?” “What’s that?” I asked. “Ganja, girl and canoe – with a life vest,” he replied, looking concerned, “you looking too serious, man.” “I write books,” I clarified. A wide grin broke on his face, “Ah that explains it, man – you loco, right?” “Right,” I said, and left him to find a more interested customer.

The solitary resolution that I am sticking to since returning from this beach holiday does not resemble any of my perennials. I don’t have to worry about those mainstays—they will get done—they are second nature to me now. And those newer, harder items, like spending more dark night with my soul etc., have been scrapped as well. My only resolution since returning from Jamaica is “Get a life, man!”

The Dead-ends in Life

When I think of the dead ends I have followed over the years and the amount of time I spent on walking those futile pathways, I must have wasted much of my life. Let me itemize a few of these duds that would not offend friends or family (the rest, you will have to imagine!):

1) Earning four academic degrees, none of which I have any recollection of putting to practical use, except on my ever changing resume. I use Microsoft Office applications more than any other, and these tools I taught myself
2) Trying several times to immigrate to the wrong country (whose name will remain unmentioned) and then, by freakish accidents, ending up in two places I never knew I would ever live in. Dubai in the 80’s was pile of sand attracting only labourers and housemaids; I ended up there for seven years, like Ulysses on Circe’s island seven times over, until I was panting to get out. I then landed in Toronto which had hitherto only been a name on those old paperbacks that claimed “this book is published simultaneously in New York, London, Toronto, Sydney & Auckland”; well, I thought, at least they read in Toronto—must be a nice place. And it was! Why did I take such a circuitous route?
3) Reading hundreds of books, many of which did not advance my understanding of this world one iota, especially the formulaic fiction that everyone was reading because these books were “so cool, and recommended”
4) Writing dozens of stories and novels, only a few which have seen the light of day. The others are making good doorstops or keeping the Post Office solvent with their to•ing and fro•ing
5) Sending out hundreds of job applications and attending dozens of “play•act” interviews only to find employment through the people I had known all along and hadn’t asked
6) Joining, forming, or playing in many music groups, all of which finally collapsed on their own success, leaving me holding onto my lonely guitar, back at square one
7) Pursuing the dot•com phenomenon. Oh, weren’t we champions of that promised new economy during those heady days of the new millennium, creating new business models by the day, taking inventions out of every basement crackpot and trying to find customers for them, and finally imploding when the banks and venture capitalists cut off their financial pipelines.
8) Rebounding to pursue this social networking thing now (Hello! Who’s out there? Are you listening? Do you even care? Do you wanna be my friend? No? THANK YOU!) No one knows where SN is heading, or how it will end. Will it be another dot•bomb?
9) Joining volunteer movements in order to make the world a better place. Instead, this planet has become worse. Oh, you egotistical sod, you were but a solitary spermlet in a sterile ejaculation that could never transform the elusive egg!

I could go on, but I would only end up depressed. A wise man once told me that Planet Earth is not a place for accomplishments but a place for learning hard lessons, often making one end up empty handed but spiritually enriched. If that were the case, I must be well on my way to earning a PhD in this joint soon. But I wonder if I will ever use that credential either?

Social Networking – a must-have or a time waster?

A couple of years ago, a reputable speaker at a literary conference told me that if I did not build a social networking platform I would be of no use to publishers in the future. In other words, I had to bring the audience to me, which in the past I had thought the publisher did. I guess he had outsourced this job – to me! Having no one else in the distribution chain to pass the buck down to, I complied, and got into heavy social networking.

Let’s see, I registered my own domain name as www.shanejoseph.com and built my own website with e•commerce capability, populating it with new content weekly (I’m not a Yahoo or Google who can update content hourly – at least, not yet!). I blogged and twittered, and joined lots of online forums where writers and readers gathered. I syndicated my blogs, became a reviewer on Goodreads and copied my book reviews over to Amazon whenever I was mindful of the p’s and q’s in my content. I Facebook’d and Linked•In’d and even started giving talks on the value of building an online platform – heck it was fashionable, why not cash in? However, I recall, so were beads and bell•bottoms and drainpipes and sideburns and “give peace a chance” love•ins, once upon a time. Very soon, I was spending several hours a week on my growing platform. I was famous but still poor.

I even thought of opening my website to advertisers and giving away all my books as free e•book downloads. Heck, I could deliver free copies to my huge platform of readers – numbering in their thousands at this point – and claim to be a best•seller, or at least, “the most widely circulated.” I’d obviously incur the wrath of my fellow writers who were trying to make a living out of this vocation; I would be banned from the writer’s union, and would never be guaranteed that any of those free copies would ever be read (people don’t even read paid•for copies anymore as they function better as doorstops, coffee placemats, bookshelf adornments, and claims to literacy rather than as vehicles of enlightenment). I might even end up turning the existing, broken book publishing model on its head. Or I might be ignored as a crackpot and dismissed with, “His writing must suck, because good things are not free, and free things are not good.”

If getting people to read your books is the end•game, then operating an online platform is essential but insufficient. You need to put the book in the reader’s hand and say “read it,” and they in turn need to put the book in other readers’ hands and say, “This is a damned good book – read it!” The online platform creates awareness and builds mystique, but there is a much longer journey from that point on the continuum to turning curious browsers into readers and endorsers.

I am not dismissing the online platform. It seems a necessary burden in these times. But I need to balance this effort with focussing on my writing and making it the best ever. I want an unprovoked reader to read my book, put it up on his social networking site and say, “Hey, listen up! Read this book, it’s so cool!” Now, that endorsement would indeed be a desirable end•result, “a consummation devoutly to be wish’d!”

Creative wells run dry – or do they?

This week I completed the first draft of another novel. This one came out very slow, as if I were pulling out a premature baby, yet unwilling to be born. I have never suffered from writers block for too long to be bothered by it in the past. But this time, I wondered whether I was indeed heading for an overdue dose of that clap.

In the last nine years, I have written enough material for an equal number of books, three of which have been published to date and the others are lying in queue, biding their time to be born without cannibalizing their predecessors. I put this prolific surge down to the suppressed years when I pursued every other endeavour but writing, when I was gathering my material, my experiences, that I was to later fictionalize in the nine books. But now the well seems to have run dry. But has it?

I recently met a well known and respected author who blew me away when he told me that he had written over 180 books over the last 25 years. I clung to his every word during our meeting, trying to figure out how “he done it.” And his advice to me was that the fallow periods are also ones of creativity: when the mind is recording impressions, new experiences, and characters, and storing them away for later use. So, he concluded, never consider the writer’s block as the beginning of the end of the writer, but the beginning of a new beginning for the writer.

New experiences, eh? Does this mean that I have to take up bungee jumping, sky diving, wade through dissolute sexual escapades, experiment with drugs and fall dead drunk on the street more than a few times? I think not. I don’t have the energy or the tolerance for those antics. Should I get people to tell me their stories; put an ad in Facebook: “Tell me your story, and I’ll exaggerate it into a novel, confidentiality assured, fame not guaranteed, royalties—doubtful”? Or should I invent a genre character, like a detective, who I can bring back time and again, into the same milieu, with more or less the same number of dead bodies, with slight modifications to the character list and scene sequences, and assure myself of a string of novels long enough to last into my retirement and beyond? I could even create a plot wheel, like Edgar Wallace did, and spin it periodically when blocked, to see if it lands on “dead body # 3 found in library,” or “purloined letter discovered on suspect,” or “diamond tiara disappears at ball.”

Or should I just accept silence as a rite of passage and continue to observe the world more intently, stilling the mind from chatter, watching life that contains all the possible plots that have been hitherto concocted in literature, picking only the ones that make sense to me?

My prolific author acquaintance gave me some good advice that day. The Block is the start of a new beginning, when what has been written before is less significant and likened to apprenticeship school, a stepping stone towards what now can be written with more depth, texture and meaning.

I am not sure how long this dry spell will last, but I am content to ride it out with my eyes wide open and not miss the cues when novel # 10 begins to stare me in the face.

Reading Books In Flight

I was dismayed when I read the revised air travel baggage regulations soon after Christmas and realized that I could take a laptop on board but not a handbag containing my books. I love to read on flights, forsaking the movie, the chatting with my neighbour, or the drinking and eating, just to catch up on my reading. Flights give me overt permission to read, my favourite pastime. I am unable to work, socialize or sleep while flying – so I read.

But now, some incompetent wannabe terrorist, who could not even ignite the bomb he stored inside his pants, has started an unanticipated vendetta against bookworms. For a moment I thought that this was a conspiracy by the e•book publishers who were secretly trying to get us conditioned to reading books off our laptops. Or perhaps it was a plan by those airport bookstores (who were quickly exempted from the book ban within days of the failed Christmas Day bomb scare) wanting to peddle all the New York Times bestsellers to us (that’s all they seem to carry these days, except for perhaps magazines, newspapers and chewing gum).

Then I realized that this dumb•ass terrorist had succeeded after all, by scaring the pants off the rest of us while burning his own. Books, not bombs, lead to enlightenment and peace. Greg Mortenson, the man behind the “The Three Cups of Tea” project, promotes this theory through his singular mission to build schools for children in Pakistan and Afghanistan so that those countries’ future citizens will learn to extend the olive branch and not the Kalashnikov. Bombs only lead to more bombs, lobbed in both directions, until the warring factions are exhausted, their assets destroyed, and fear and suspicion has taken firm root, never to be dislodged for generations.

Therefore, I wondered whether I should write to all the airport security organizations around the world asking them to scrap their plans to buy those intrusive super X ray machines that they are planning to install in airports shortly. Let them give those machines to hospitals and medical clinics instead, so that they can be used to detect hidden tumours and other cancerous foreign bodies growing inside us, and help get us timely remediation. Instead, pass a law that requires every passenger in an aircraft seat to be reading a book while in flight! In fact, add “book tax” to the many taxes on airline tickets these days and give each passenger his pre•ordered book at the departure gate – after all, if advance seat selection is possible, why not advance book selection? It could be all part of your “booking.” Just think of it – the publishing industry would enter a new renaissance. Airplanes would become the universities of the future, forcibly educating the teeming masses hurtling through the skies.

And as for those terrorists – I’d like to see one of those guys, with his face glued to a book in a cramped aircraft seat, try to stuff a bomb up his ass and light the fuse!

Celebrity Conundrum

When the sad tale of the greatest golfer’s fall from grace, or more aptly, fall from the stereotype, broke recently, I was glad that I was not in his cleats.

Just the other day, I was lamenting the fact that my books weren’t best•sellers, yet (you see, I am ever hopeful, and vain). But with best•seller status comes celebrity and intrusion and conformance to publicly held standards that the public themselves have difficulty attaining. The celebrity becomes the de•facto symbol of all that we (Joe Blow Public) have been unable to accomplish in our lives – our dream, our mirage. And when that bubble pops, the fallen celebrity is attacked with venom that is unjustified. How dare he burst my bubble?

The public spotlight is a lonely one, especially when that spotlight is conferred by corporate sponsorship and brand imagery that the celebrity is supposed to enhance. One wonders if the emerging celebrity’s own brand is neutered to become a subset of the sponsor’s existing brand, and never really stands on its own.

And what about his competition: the ones who can now jump in and fill the void, and who have been waiting impatiently to grab at some of the spoils, albeit under visages of equally clean living gentlemen who have never transgressed?

And what about immediate family members? Do they circle the wagons and protect the fallen one, or do they also pounce and pick at what pieces are left, lining their own pockets and leaving the carcass to the next level of celebrity: the notorious tabloids that will make our former celebrity weekly faire for the next few months, linking him with scandals true and untrue, until they have milked him for every bit of news and turned him into the monster they have portrayed him to be?

So this poor celebrity is shouldering quite a few weights already: the need to keep winning in his chosen field of endeavour, the need to behave in a manner that supports and enhances corporate sponsors, the need to portray an image of success that his public following can never emulate, the need to suppress his own desires and aspirations should they ever digress from all of the above. And while doing all of that, he can never totally rely on family support as he desperately tries to stay out of the hands of the tabloids. By Jove, that’s a heavy load! No wonder the Risk•Reward diagram is like a see•saw and not a circle, as I had once though it to be. What goes around does not necessarily come around in equal measure for celebrities; it comes around accompanied by either a sack full of dough or a millstone.

So, as the New Year is upon us, I am secretly glad that I am not a celebrity – yet (I told you I was vain!) And I wonder, if that day ever comes, whether I would have the energy to withstand a PR faux pas, however innocuous it may be? Or whether I would long for these days when even if I had jumped off the CN Tower, I may not have warranted more than a footnote in the local rag— “Fruitcake Tries to Fly Off Tall Building.”

Man, do I need to win one of them literary awards?

Now that the launches are over, and the book stores (the ones I know of) have been supplied with my books and all my friends and relatives have been cajoled, teased and threatened to buy a copy of my latest creation in time for Christmas, how does one get to the next level of book sales?

Why not win an award?

I have seen writers’ works (spurred by their agents) being slavishly flogged at every literary award in the land and beyond. Fail one? Go for the next, and keep on the trail until someone feels sorry for you and gives you an award. Then sit back and watch book sales take off into the stratosphere.

Why does that happen? The power of endorsement, in a media•stricken society where the making of choice has been abdicated to “Oprah Recommended” or “Heather’s Pick”— that’s why.

Reader’s are wary of picking up a book unless it has some label: “long listed for X Award”, short listed for Y Award”, “Winner of Z Award” Who gives a damn about the award and the integrity of its selection process? “Hey, this book won an award – it must be good!”

Can any writer win an award? I am not sure about that these days given that awards are the tickets to best•seller status; they must be closely guarded like the Crown Jewels. I guess any publisher could forward their favourite author’s book to the dreaded long list: just mail in an application and advertize it on the book’s dust jacket – that’s a start! But getting beyond that to the short list? Now that is another story, because here is where you encounter the gatekeepers, those guardians entrusted with protecting the livelihood of the industry, to ensure that a few major labels are still around as the landscape gets littered with more self•publishing, blogs, wikis and other “noise” that take away from the public’s reading time.

I thought of inventing my own award once— after all, who would really tell the difference? I even wrote a blog article about it some time ago and it got more hits than the number of sold copies of my books. Eventually, I abandoned that idea because I am a writer, not a gatekeeper. And I figured that if there is a good story out there it will be told, eventually— even posthumously. Writers are gifted with the ability to tell stories and their stories will be heard.

This message came home powerfully to me when my novel After the Flood, which I wrote in 2002 and which languished for years afterwards in my “abandoned projects” file because no•one was interested in its subject matter, suddenly found interest when climate change became a hot topic last year.

Perhaps, I will not go for that award after all. Perhaps my reward is that the story got told, eventually, and during my lifetime—what a bonus!

Reading Fifty Books a Year – a necessary civic duty

I have always wanted to read at least fifty books a year – approximately one a week, like a chain smoker, only this habit was healthier.

During my youth, sports, studies, work, girls, dreams all got in the way of reading those fifty books a year. When I tried to squeeze books in among those “higher priorities”, I only managed a handful. When marriage and family came along, I abandoned the idea completely, sticking instead to the newspapers, TV and the odd business book that my boss tossed at me, saying, “You will read this book. It’s good for your career.” Oh yes, and I read Dr. Seuss to my children.

At the age of fifty, when family had grown and gone, and jobs had come and gone, and dreams no longer came, I realized that I was a literary illiterate; only I was honest enough to admit it among my peers. I’d walk into a giant bookstore or a library, look at all the accumulated knowledge sitting in there, and feel intimidated and diminished. I felt that I had wasted my life.

And so I finally started reading my fifty books a year, a few years ago. I have read a couple of hundred so far and I feel that I have moved a millimetre. At least I can name•drop, “Joyce? Dante? Kafka? – oh, yeah, I’ve read them. And Woolf, and Conrad and Chekov too!” I realize that I have only skimmed the surface – the more I read, the less certain I am.

But here is the $64K dilemma, and I’m not in it alone. There is a whole generation out there like me—the yuppie generation—and we still run the world, I think, even though a few Gen X’s are dislodging us quietly. Thus, should I conclude that the world is being run by a bunch of literary illiterates? Is that why we continue to have wars and stock market collapses and famine and “us against them” and crime and “have’s vs. have•nots”? We have no sense of history of man’s foibles over the centuries as told in these books, so that we could develop the common sense to avoid them. For Pete’s sake – that guy Machiavelli confessed to all of what we have committed today in the name of progress, but how many of us have read and been shaken by The Prince or The Art of War? Instead, we repeat history and say, “Oops, sorry! Didn’t know that would cause a problem.”

So my fervent prayer is that everyone of us yuppies, puppies, Gen X’s and Y’s solemnly promise to read at least fifty books a year – good books, not trashy pulp fiction where only the bad guys win, and the good guys are also thinly veiled bad guys. Hopefully, in about 50 years—if the planet lasts that long—the treasure trove of accumulated knowledge in those libraries will seep back into us again (after all, they flowed out of our predecessors when they were written) and we will have a more enlightened, less dogmatic, more caring, more sharing society, with a sense of stability drawn from history.

In the meantime, I am off to read book number 43 for this year. Given that it’s August, I am on track to reach my goal for the fourth year running. How about you?